The Life Aquatic: A few thoughts from an isolated field school on the island of South Caicos

Some reflections from above and below the waves on what has been an amazing, but equally challenging semester abroad in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Here I am flying across the back with a few of my friends on our first advanced open water dive! Photo by John DeBuysser

Nick Bowman, Class of 2023
Archaeology and Classical Civilizations Major


My days at The School for Field Studies (SFS) Center for Marine Resource Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) are rarely the same. One morning I may be attending lectures when our resupply vessel, the Lew, arrives with our next two weeks’ worth of food. We then drop everything and rush to unload trucks and store our provisions in the pantry and walk-in fridge before returning to class. Another day might begin with SCUBA diving at one of the many sites near the center and end by joining in for a local soccer practice or delivering arts and crafts to schools in the community.


Life as a college student on South Caicos, or just South as many of us have come to know it, is a world apart from Wesleyan or even the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, where I studied last semester. Many of the daily comforts I have grown accustomed to don’t exist here. For example, because South has no natural fresh water supply other than rainwater, I’m only allowed one cold freshwater shower a week, as the center does not waste electricity to heat the water. All of my other showers are taken in saltwater, or I bathe in the ocean, and similarly I wash my clothes by hand in saltwater before hanging them to dry. Our sewage system uses saltwater too (noticing a pattern?), meaning all of the toilet paper must be thrown out in trash cans as the salinity prevents the material from breaking down as well (ew! I know). The center also lacks privacy (I live in a bunkhouse with three other guys) and internet speeds and connectivity are extremely inconsistent, making communication with friends and family stateside a challenge. Oh, and have I mentioned the populations of wild dogs, donkeys, and horses that roam the island and sound of like the Tusken Raiders from Star Wars every night? It shouldn’t be a surprise now by, but South has no Walmart, McDonalds, or even a midnight falafel truck; stores, restaurants, and bars on the island are small family-run operations, often found in backyards or several rooms in houses.


While on spring break I went free diving with sea turtles! Photo by Fah Fair

While this may not seem like the best advertisement for a semester abroad, I would not have it any other way. The charms of South, the saltwater showers, dodgy internet, and annoying donkeys make life at the SFS center a truly unique college experience, all before mentioning the fieldwork, diving, and overland adventures I have experienced in my first months on the island. Two weeks ago, I surveyed queen conch populations while snorkeling inside and outside the local marine protected area and wrote a scientific report with my group detailing our findings. Throughout the semester, I have dived at many of the sites near the center, swimming with a dolphin, sea turtles, and eagle rays. I have also journeyed in the bed of pick-ups to isolated coves around the island to remove plastics and other anthropogenic debris.


Katie and I are working together to navigate a coral free using a compass. Photo by John DeBuysser

It is in moments such as these that I find it hard to believe I am still in college, still with papers to write, tests to take, and applications to fill out, but those can wait, right? Whenever I slide off the gunnels of one of our boats for a snorkel or hear the count of “three, two, one, roll!” before plunging into the sea with my SCUBA gear, those stressors, and personal challenges I face stay aboard while I slip below the azure waves of the Atlantic. In the past year I have increasingly felt the pull of the ocean and been drawn to its shores. Any day in the water is a good day to me, and I have found great solace this semester in the company of the sea, especially when dealing with personal hardships. Even as I write this post now, I find my eyes drifting toward the ocean and its crashing waves, looking for whale spouts and following the shore of Long Cay with my eyes until it meets with the horizon.


The sunsets on South are tough to beat. Photo by Norman Alterado

A semester abroad with SFS on South is certainly not for everyone. My days are long and filled with many hours of classes, physically demanding work in the sun, and swimming transect lines through strong currents. The few free hours we have after dinner are often consumed by cleaning the meal’s dishes and assaulting the mountain of readings and assignments temporarily forgotten during the day’s field exercises. That being said, if you have a sense of adventure and calling for the deep blue and all things SCUBA, the island of South Caicos, with its crazy dogs and obnoxious donkeys, may just be a place you’d want to call home for a few months.


Be seeing you,